Fewer Fires in Athens Redefines the Role of Firefighter

By: Patrick Adcock

The call came at 10:50 P.M. Firefighters rushed to get suited-up and piled on the truck as the siren began to blare. School alarms require a quick response, but these men train for years to get to a location as quickly as possible no matter who is in need.

They arrived to find students already lined up on the curb outside of the dorms by the bus stop. The flashing lights created briefly illuminated silhouettes of the crowd on the sides of the surrounding buildings. A group of firemen locate the smoke-filled common area that was the source of the alarm.

This is the reality of college towns and the firefighters that serve them. A change occurred in the last forty years in America – the reported number of fires requiring an emergency response fell from 3.3 million per year in the 1970s to 1.2 million in 2013 based on a report from the National Fire Protection Association. Yet there are now more working firefighters employed by local governments than ever before.

That change is reflected in Athens, where fewer fires are occurring in comparison to previous decades. Now, the fire department responds to around 3,000 calls in a calendar year. The population of Athens, however, continues to grow. Between 2010 and 2013, the population grew by 4%, and with urbanization that trend is expected to continue according to census data. This trend shows that more people living in Athens are causing fewer fires than previous generations.

University of Georgia Police Chief Jimmy Williamson has an idea for what led to such a dramatic decline in fires.

“It’s the building codes,” said Williamson. “We have much better building codes today than we did years ago.”

Buildings must now conform to standardized construction practices such as using fireproof materials. Today’s citizens are also more aware of fire prevention methods, and firefighters themselves train hard to effectively put out conflagrations.

On the UGA Police Department’s website, data can be found about fires responded to on campus since 2009. A large proportion are accidental, such as students leaving food cooking in microwaves or letting clothes get too close to lit candles.

Arson is also a common cause of fire responses on the UGA campus. Students sometimes set papers or posters on walls alight intentionally. Alarm systems are toyed with and burned. If the fire department arrives to find that an alarm has been pulled intentionally, law enforcement is notified.

The reality is that today’s firefighters are responding to just as many false alarms as real fires, and unfortunately there is no way for them to tell which alarms are actual fires. However, more firefighters are working today than at any point in the past.

The National Fire Protection Association estimates that there are 350,000 firefighters on the payroll as of 2012 in America. In 1986, there were 240,000 paid firefighters.

There are more firefighters fighting fewer fires than previous generations.

The Athens-Clarke County Fire Company was first incorporated in 1850 and was located in a building that is now part of the Classic Center. Several years later, the first municipal fire department was formed, initially employing 15 firefighters.

According to the Athens-Clarke County website, there are now 190 personnel working for the fire department here spread across nine stations and one training facility. Each station has their own fire engine along with a handful of other support vehicles for the county.

Firefighters here serve many roles however, not just in responding to fires.

Kyle Hendrix, assistant chief of operations with the fire department, points out that a few of the fire department’s trucks carry ropes and rescue equipment, such as the Jaws of Life. Fire responders can deal with vehicle collisions, rescue situations and all manner of other emergencies.

Hendrix, however, does not see firefighters as primarily medical responders. In an interview with the Red and Black, Hendrix said, “The fire department historically has never been a medical services provider.”

Additionally, the fire department is responsible for putting on show and tells at the University and other places around town. Part of the reason the number of reported fires has declined is the fact that the average citizen today knows more about fire prevention than previously.

While there are more firefighters employed today than ever before and fewer fires being reported than ever before, the fire department stills serves an integral role in Athens life. With their other activities and responsibilities, firefighters are also working more than in previous years, and their efforts are essential to keeping fire rates low. However, the image of a firefighter rushing into a burning building is not the face of their everyday work anymore.

Remember that call that came at night from the East Campus dorms of UGA? Firefighters arrived in the common room kitchen to find that the cause of the smoke that set off the alarm – a batch of over-baked cookies forgotten in the oven by a student.

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